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Germany

The Vast But Delicate China-Germany Alliance

Chinese and German leaders met last week to further extend economic ties. Yet in the shadow of Hong Kong, issues like espionage, democracy and competition make for a fragile relationship.

The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang presents a burr puzzle to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 10, 2014.
The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang presents a burr puzzle to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on October 10, 2014.
Stefan Braun

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel"s podcasts have so far had very limited impact, although she continues to address the public regularly via the Internet. And just about as regularly, there is very little reaction.

So it's very interesting that just a few days before last week's consultations between the Chinese and German governments, Merkel chose that medium to comment on the Hong Kong democracy protests, saying she was happy that "the protests have been peaceful so far" and adding that she hoped "the police would also react judiciously."

The remarks were harmless, and it's unlikely that the demonstrators in Hong Kong or China's critics in Germany took much notice. But shortly before Friday's meetings began, rumors were flying around Beijing that the German ambassador had been called in for a talk as a result of Merkel's comments.

As it turns out, the rumor was just that, a rumor. But the anxiety that inevitably emerges on the subject of Beijing's human rights policies demonstrates just how wobbly the supposedly stable strategic partnership is between the two countries. And for that reason these government consultations are also going to be a balancing act.

Although links between the governments and the economies have perhaps never been as tight as they are today, the most subtle of nuances can offend. Maybe that's why Merkel mentioned Hong Kong days beforehand on the Internet. The reference and its venue were insignificant enough not to unleash open conflict. And since then no China critic can claim she left the subject unaddressed.

A unique arrangement

China doesn't conduct high-level consultations that include prime ministers with any other country. On Friday, 14 Chinese ministers met with 12 of their German counterparts to discuss more than 100 joint projects, the focal point being the so-called innovation partnership. But what's supposed to sound particularly clever harbors risks. While Beijing mainly understands innovation partnership to mean more exchange of high tech, Berlin is trying to extend the term to include the environment, climate protection, agriculture, food, but also social policies, education and democracy.

In the context of innovation partnership, the German federal government even hopes to discuss whether "a society can only really be innovative if its people can think freely,"" as a member of the Berlin government put it. Will it work? The word is that the Chinese are at least "prepared to talk."

That could of course be because Beijing, like Berlin, has to deal with worsening economic data, and the two countries need each other more than ever. Their economies have complemented each other well over the last 10 years, although the situation is slightly tenser now. A poll of German companies by the Berlin-based Mercator Foundation shows that business conditions are becoming increasingly difficult and that more companies are seeking alternatives to the Chinese market.

That is in part explained by the fact that many Chinese companies are trying to compete with the Germans in areas where the latter lead world markets. China is increasingly going "from junior partner to competitor," says Mercator's Marc Szepan.

Espionage plays a role in this too. According to German intelligence circles, there are hacker attacks from China on medium-sized German companies every week. But despite all the aggravation, it remains clear that the Chinese market is still irreplaceable for many German companies.

What should in any case be addressed are the cases of two Germans sitting in Chinese jails and facing possible death sentences. That goes too for easing visa requirements for both sides, and the difficulties faced by German policy foundations operating in China. Along with economic interests, Berlin's diplomats are also pursuing political goals, urging Beijing to pressure the Russians to stay moderate in the Middle East and Ukraine. Since Russia has been in conflict with the West over the Ukraine crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin has become more dependent on good relations with China. Berlin sees an opportunity there to weigh on Putin via Beijing.

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